February 27, 2009

Saints Entertaining Free Agents On First Weekend

Former Jaguars Barnes, Sensabaugh and rising star CB Bartell visiting New Orleans

The Saints are wooing three free agents in the first days of the free agency season.

Two defensive backs, CB Ronald Bartell and S Gerald Sensabaugh are among those visiting, as well as OT Khalif Barnes. Bartell is a free agent from St. Louis and Sensabaugh and Barnes are former Jaguars.

The Saints will entertain free agents over the next three days, with Bartell arriving on Friday, Sensabaugh on Saturday and Barnes on Sunday.

Bartell, 27, 6'1, 205, is a young, tall and quiet star at the cornerback position who played well for defensive coordinator Jim Haslett in St. Louis since he was drafted in the second round by the Rams in 2005. A small school star at Howard, Bartell has four years experience in an aggressive defense that requires man coverage skills, a schema not too different from Gregg Williams' scheme in New Orleans.

Bartell had a remarkable 19 passes defensed in 2008 to go with three interceptions. Though it is not a regular duty, Bartell even returned a punt for a touchdown in 2006. He started all 16 games for the Rams last season, and was a started in 2007 but was benched for four games in the middle of the Rams' abysmal three-win season. Bartell shifted between FS and CB his first two seasons, rarely getting into the starting lineup and struggling to find his game. He is a remarkable athlete who is just now coming into his own as a cornerback in the NFL and in 2008 may have budded into a legitimate star. It's hard to tell though, considering that the Rams were even worse at 2-14.

The Saints will entertain two former Jaguars this weekend, Sensabaugh and Barnes. Both were starters for the Jaguars, though Barnes' career has never lived up to his second-round pick billing and Sensabaugh's play has been inconsistent. New Saints' defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, in the same role in Jacksonville last year, has familiarity with both.

Sensabaugh's career broke out of the doldrums in 2008 under Williams. Playing both free and strong safety, he made an immediate impact as a fifth round pick for the Jaguars in 2005. A special teams demon in college, he continued that in the pros and filled in twice for injured starter Donovan Darius at strong safety in his first two seasons. In 2007 his season was ended after week two because of a shoulder injury, the only time he would not play in every game of his season.

He exploded in 2008, one of the few bright spots for the Jaguars' disappointing season. Starting at strong safety for the Jaguars, he also has started at free safety and played as a cover safety in nickel and dime situations in 2008. Whether it was Gregg Williams' presence as defensive coordinator, a chance to play opposite solid FS Reggie Nelson, or the fact that 2008 was his contract year, Sensabaugh was a star in 2008. He collected 70 tackles, eight passes defensed and four picks last year.

Interest in Barnes indicates a desire for the team to insulate themselves against the departure of stalwart right tackle Jon Stinchcomb, who remains a free agent. It also indicates that the Saints are not comfortable simply sliding backups Zach Strief or Jermon Bushrod into the starting job. Barnes, 27, 6'5, 325 pounds and is a good athlete who started in his rookie season at the crucial left tackle job. He did not allow a sack until late in the season and he played very well.

Since that flash in 2005, Barnes has been inconsistent and haunted by off-field issues. He's been beaten by the pass rushers of divisional foes and may now not be quick enough to play the left side. Though he played left tackle in his Jacksonville career he was benched at times in 2007.

Barnes started all 16 games for the Jags in 2008 and is considered a far better run blocker than pass blocker.

Both former Jaguars have had multiple run-ins with the law in recent years. Most recently, Sensabaugh was arrested two weeks ago for driving with a suspended license in his small Tennessee hometown. The license had been suspended for multiple violations including firearms possession violations.

Barnes was arrested in November 2006 during a DUI stop that was taped, capturing an obscenity and racial slur-riddled tirade. Barnes later violated the terms of his probation by leaving the scene of a one-car accident. The Raiders are also going after Barnes.

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